Ben Cummins, City Year Jacksonville AmeriCorps Team Leader serving at William M. Raines High Schoolby Ben Cummins, City Year Jacksonville AmeriCorps Team Leader serving at William M. Raines High School

Finding a passion took some time for me.  When I was studying at Indiana University (IU), I was undecided in my major for the first two years. I did not want to commit myself to any field until I had tried everything that interested me. I tested the waters in so many subjects before I finally landed on sociology at the beginning of my junior year.

I also knew that I love working with children and was passionate about education. I decided to serve with City Year because I believe that education is one of the most important things that a person can have, something that can never be taken away.  Through education young people become empowered and learn how to advocate for themselves, contributing to that process is an absolute privilege.

Studying sociology gave me a lot to think about as City Year Jacksonville AmeriCorps member. A teammate recently described it as “psychology for society” and I find that description to be really apt. It provided me with the “sociological perspective” and made me question why the things that are happening in the world are happening. It also helped me to understand people better, especially people who are very different from me. When I graduated from IU in May of 2016 with a degree in Sociology, I had just recently confirmed that I would be serving with City Year Jacksonville.

My first year of City Year was great for me. I served in a sixth-grade math classroom at an elementary school, and I loved working with children. Growing up, I was the student who struggled with learning disabilities and was hesitant to reach out for help from the adults in my life. When offered help I would refuse it more often than not due to a lack of self-confidence. I empathize with the students that struggle silently in school, so I strive to be approachable and uplifting as a mentor to my students. I love seeing the progress that my students make growing socially alongside their academics.

I was seeing a lot of the things I had learned about in college first hand in my service here in Jacksonville. While I am thankful for the education I received at IU, there’s a huge difference between learning about concepts in a lecture hall and actually experiencing them in person. My first year of service was a powerful experience for me, and at the end of my first service year I decided to apply for a second year – this time as a Team Leader.

I remember when I accepted the Team Leader position, I felt certain that I knew what I was in for. I mean, I had served for a whole year already! Sure, my position was changing, but would that really change the experience THAT much? Year two was going to be just like year one!

I could not have been more wrong.

I was moving from an elementary to a high school, and that seemed like going from one end of the spectrum to the other. But my worries soon faded because my tenth-grade students instantly reminded me a lot of my sixth-graders. They face a lot of the same challenges in the classroom, and I found myself able to mentor and tutor them just as well. Sure, high school math is a little tougher, but I quickly found my groove. 

Meeting my students at William M. Raines High School was one of the first and biggest reliefs that I had for this new role. And it was huge! But work in the classroom only feels like one-third of the work that Team Leaders have. A lot of the Team Leader’s role involves supporting and leading the people who serve alongside you in your school, and that idea was nerve-wracking for me as well. This was my first legitimate leadership role and I had no idea how it would go. What if I don’t get along with my team? What if I don’t know the answers to their questions? What if I need help?  For the record – I love my team to death. But these are concerns that I had before I met them, and they are challenges that I have had to confront during my second year. Confronting these challenges has what helped me to realize how I’ve grown.

Ben and the William M. Raines High School team along with their sister team, Jean Ribault High School 

As someone who has moved far from home to do this work, being part of the City Year community, specifically the City Year Jacksonville community, has been a really great thing. The support system and friendships that I’ve gained working here are some of the closest and most important ones that I have. As a Team Leader, I’ve leaned on my school team, my Impact Manager, my senior corps family and the City Year Jacksonville staff for so much. The fact that they have been there to celebrate with me my highs and support me through my lows has meant the world. I’m sure they were there and willing to do that for me last year, but I never felt comfortable with being vulnerable, asking for help or admitting that I did not know the answer. Even as a student, this was something I struggled with in school, and it stuck with me until this most recent service year. The fact that I am willing to do that now tells me either that I have matured while working in this organization. I learned that it is okay to be vulnerable in front of people or that this organization is just that great and I feel this comfortable because of how wonderful the people that work with me are. I like to think that both are the case.

Another thing I have learned during my City Year experience that I think will stick with me for the rest of my life is the power of outwardly appreciating another person. It is so validating to be appreciated by people that you admire and work with, and a well thought out appreciation can be a bright moment that they return to and remember for a long time. City Year’s way of making appreciating others a norm has made me reflect a lot on what others do and have done for me, and that is a beautiful thing and has had a huge impact on my life.

“You get out of it what you put into it” is a lesson that City Year proves to me every day of service. Here’s the thing about that lesson, though: the important part of it isn’t that you get something out of it. What’s important is that you put anything in it to begin with! I’ve found that if you put love and care into the community, you’ll get it in return. These past two service years have taught me so much about myself, what my goals and passions are. They’ve caused me to grow in so many ways, and our work continuously shows me where I still can grow. It makes me want to grow. I’d be really hard-pressed find a workplace that feels like this much of a family and that invests so much in me both as a professional and as a human. I can’t wait to continue to grow with this organization.

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